Why Does The European Space Agency Launch Its Rockets from South America?
published during a waning gibbous moon.
07/22/2016

rockets

Devil’s Island today. Credit: Cayambe

Here’s a counterintuitive fact: Almost all of the European Space Agency’s launches happen from a spaceport in South America. That site, the Kourou Spaceport, lies in French Guiana, considered an “overseas department” of France. The launch facility has been under the purview of the ESA ever since France (which is part of the ESA) offered to share the site with them in 1975 when the ESA was founded.

The existence of the Kourou Spaceport goes back to 1962 when Algeria gained independence from France. With the loss of Algeria, the French gave up a military launch site located in the Algerian part of the Sahara Desert. They were in need of a new site, and they needed one to which they had some sort of legal claim. With their rapidly dwindling empire, the French were left with 14 options in places as far-ranging as Madagascar, Australia, Polynesia, and the Island of Tobago.

rockets

A sign welcoming visitors to the Guiana Space Center. Credit: Benoît Prieur / Wikimedia Commons.

A study of the various options showed that French Guiana was the clear and obvious choice. Sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the inhospitably dense Amazon Rainforest on every other side, the region’s main claim to fame prior to the space program was an egregiously inhumane prison colony the French had maintained there for a century.

rockets

The remains of one of French Guiana’s penal colonies. Credit: ESA

Though there is an even longer history of exiling political enemies to French Guiana, the prisons there had been in official use as the destination since 1854 for political prisoners and petty criminals alike. A French law requiring repeat criminal offenders to be transported there expanded the prison population dramatically. Many died en route, and a fair number escaped into the jungle after they arrived. This same law also increased the population of the colony by filling it with ex-inmates who, though they had served their sentences, were banned from returning to France. The horrors of this prison, ominously named “Devil’s Island,” were famously detailed in former prisoner Henri Charrière’s memoir “Papillon.”

Prior to its use as a prison colony, French Guiana has been populated, potentially, for around 10,000 years by Native Americans. It has a dark history of European colonization and slavery ever since Christopher Columbus spotted it on his third voyage to the new world in 1498. Since then, wars, treaties, and rebellions have passed ownership of French Guiana between the Portuguese, British, Dutch, and French. In 1946, it entered the European Union as an overseas department of France, where it remains to this day as the only part of the Amazon Rainforest technically in the Eurozone.

That explains how the ESA had a legal claim to build in there in the first place, but why would a sparsely populated, economically depressed, densely forested former penal colony with limited infrastructure a hemisphere away be such a compelling site? The answer to that question lies in both physics and geography.

rockets

An Ariane 5 rocket launch taking a geostationary satellite into orbit in 2013. Credit: ESA/CNES/ARIANESPACE-Optique Photo Video du CSG

French Guiana is located just south of the equator. Not all locations are equal when it comes to blasting something into space—Earth is actually moving faster at the equator than at higher latitudes. As nonsensical as it sounds, it is true. From a rotation standpoint, every place on Earth’s surface moves at the same speed—one rotation per day. But if you look at it from a distance traveled per time standpoint, the results differ by due to the change in circumference at different latitudes.  More speed at launch reduces the amount of fuel necessary to get into orbit.

But, to be fair, the French had other equatorial options as well. It was French Guiana’s position on the easternmost edge of South America that really sealed the deal. Its location on the coast meant that it had enough open ocean to the East that it could safely launch a rocket over a range of 102 degrees. That range gives it the ability to launch really far-out geosynchronous satellites that travel in east-west directions, as well other crafts in lower orbits in a north-south direction.

Other geographic elements helping French Guiana’s case related to logistics and safety. In terms of logistics, its seaport is deep enough to allow ships full of heavy space equipment to dock there. From a safety standpoint, the region is not at risk of cyclones or earthquakes. A final plus was the region’s extremely low population density, reducing the risk of lost lives in the event of a catastrophic launch.

The first object launched into space from Guiana was a satellite named DIAL-WIKA on March 10th 1970. The purpose of the mission was to test a three-stage rocket developed by the Germans and the French. Since then, it has become a major hub, launching numerous geostationary satellites, ESA missions to the International Space Station, and even the Russian Soyuz.

rockets

The Diamant rocket carrying the DIAL-MIKA spacecraft right before the first orbital launch from French Guiana. Credit: CNES

Before the spaceport, French Guiana was only a painful reminder of colonial exploitation, slavery, and inhumane incarceration. The spaceport, though still a remnant of that colonial time, has added a brighter chapter to its darker past. You can still get a small taste of that past—the ruins of the old Devil’s Island prison are open to tourists, thanks to the ESA.  Check ahead before you go—they close it during launches. The islands east of the pad, Devil’s Island included, are evacuated before a rocket thunders off from Kourou into space.